Hearts of the matter
There’s optimism in the air as The Drum arrives at Tynecastle stadium. Maybe it’s simply that the sun is shining on this particular Friday morning, comfortably warming the empty stands. Maybe it’s in anticipation of the upcoming showdown with archrivals Hibernian on Sunday.
Or perhaps it’s just that David Southern, the new communications director at Heart of Midlothian FC, is an optimistic sort of guy.
Southern is, of course, a well-known name in the Scottish PR industry. As one-half of the management team at Atlantic PR (latterly Harrison Cowley Scotland), along with long-time business partner Malcolm Brown, Southern blazed a trail through the Scottish scene, impressing and irritating rival PR firms in seemingly equal measure.
Southern’s interest in PR began at university. While in his final year studying maths at Glasgow Caledonian he opted to take an additional, one-day per week, course in marketing. This led to a postgraduate course in marketing at the University of Stirling followed by an additional postgraduate course, again at Stirling, in PR.
Southern had been encouraged to take the PR course by Mike Murphy, then boss at PR Consultants Scotland, who subsequently hired him as a trainee account executive.
“It was all under the wing of a couple of good guys, and guys that I would always mention when I look back on consultancy life,” says Southern. “Mike Murphy, without a doubt. And Dave Budge, who’s definitely someone that I learnt a lot from.”
PR Consultants Scotland also introduced Southern to future business partner Brown, who was soon to be setting up his own PR operation. At PR Consultants Scotland Brown had handled PR for Rangers FC. However, after a while it occurred to Rangers owner David Murray that instead of paying a retainer fee to a PR consultancy he would be as well setting up his own firm to handle the business. After seven years with PR Consultants Scotland Southern was set to move on. He recalls: “Malcolm went off to set up Carnegie PR, under the wing of David Murray. I had an interest in sport from then, really, because I was doing PR work for Rangers, helping Malcolm. The opportunity came up to join Malcolm at Carnegie PR so that’s what I did.”
The company was formed with Southern, Brown and a part-time secretary, and over the following four years was developed into an eight-strong consultancy. In 2000 the two directors staged a management buyout, from the Carnegie Group, and renamed the company Atlantic PR.
“It really was tremendous. It was high pressure, but it’s always going to be that way if you run your own company,” says Southern. “I don’t believe anybody that runs their own company doesn’t feel pressure at some point. The best way of describing it is that we had a whale of a time.”
During its lifetime Atlantic won The Drum’s PR Consultancy of the Year title twice, firmly establishing it as one of Scotland’s leading young PR firms.
However, it wasn’t long before the company’s success brought it to the attention of a larger organisation and, in October 2002, the company announced that it had been sold to regional PR network Harrison Cowley.
Southern comments: “For clients it gave them UK and European exposure right away; it gave the staff more opportunities to work on big blue chip clients; and the third thing was the personal thing – was it worth us doing this. Now and then I got a little flinch of ‘it’s great running your own businesses, no-one tells you what to do and you can make decisions right away.’ Instead of that something you could have done literally in minutes can take weeks or months when you’re with a bigger organisation.”
After a couple of years being part of a larger organisation began to take its toll and Southern decided it was time to move on. During the consultancy’s Atlantic days it handled a number of PR campaigns for the Scottish Rugby Union, during Phil Anderton’s days as marketing director. So when Southern heard a rumour that Anderton, now chief executive at Hearts, was looking for somebody to head the club’s communications department, he picked up the phone and put in a call.
Recent months have brought about a time of real change at Hearts. After Lithuanian banker Vladimir Romanov bought the club last year several new signings, both off and on the pitch, have aimed to raise its fortunes. As well as several new players in the team, on the business side Anderton was signed on as chief executive in March of this year, with the subsequent recruitment of Southern and a new, as yet unnamed, commercial director bolstering the marketing operation.
As communications director Southern takes control of a small two-person team, consisting of himself and communications manager, Clare Cowan.
“I’m looking forward to it; it’s going to be a challenge. But I think, at the moment, I’m getting in on the ground floor of something that could be very, very good,” says Southern. “We’re dealing with fans, as opposed to customers. They’re one and the same here, but first and foremost you have to look at them as fans.”
Southern believes that there is much more marketing potential in the Hearts brand than has been capitalised on so far, and it’s something he and the other new Hearts executives are keen to work on.
Gesturing to one of the Hearts of Midlothian crests adorning the stands at Tynecastle, he states: “If you took the HMFC off of that logo there, people would still know who that is. That’s how strong our brand is. The amazing thing is it’s just not being marketed well enough, and that’s where there’s tremendous potential in this as a business. You’ve always got to be careful talking about a football club as a business, but we’re in the real world here and that brand has tremendous associations with it, a fantastic tradition, and it means so much to so many people.”
Southern points to the fact that the club’s oldest season ticket holders are in their 80s and 90s and have been visiting Tynecastle for, in some cases, 80 years as evidence of the value the brand has among fans. Yet the club’s growth can’t come solely from attracting established fans to matches.
“It’s a family thing; it’s a traditional thing. But the other thing for us is new fans, and that’s what we’re trying to do on the commercial side and the communication side, merchandising, retail and on the pitch. We hit the 10,000 season ticket mark the day before yesterday, and 30 per cent of those are brand new season ticket holders, they’ve never held a season ticket for Hearts before, and that’s a great indication that things are happening.”
At the end of last season the club made a concerted effort to communicate with its fan base. One of the issues that emerged was that supporters who brought their families to games objected to the amount of foul language being shouted by fans near to them. Hearts responded by dedicating an entire stand to families. The club is also planning on opening a family restaurant in the stadium, as well as other family-targeted activities. “On Sunday we’ve got the face-painters in, we’ve got musicians in, and we’ve got a pyrotechnic fireworks display,” says Southern. “It’s all things to add to the whole experience.”
In addition to helping raise the profile of the club and attract new fans, Southern’s role will involve handling the media during match days and organising post-match interviews, along with Cowan. He’s got a lot on his plate, but is clearly looking forward to the challenge. He said: “I really do want to be enthused by what I do. At Harrison Cowley, latterly, I wasn’t getting that. It was difficult, having run your own business, to be managing and directing a much smaller part of a much bigger organisation. It just didn’t sit comfortably with me. Whereas here I’ll design the strategy, I’ll design the communications plan and it’ll slot into the business plan. I’ll work with Phil on that, with the new commercial director, and I’ll take it forward. I’ll motor it.”
As keen as he was to take on the Hearts role, the decision has marked the end of a long business relationship with Brown. But Southern maintains that his departure hasn’t created any animosity between the two.
“Malcolm and I are best of friends. Best of friends first, before best of colleagues. Malcolm has probably seen more of me, much to his angst, than he has of his wife for the last ten years, and that is very worrying. But in that length of time you develop a bond, a friendship, that goes beyond running a company. I think Malcolm and I know each other well enough to know that we’ve had a very, very good innings with each other. The first thing Malcolm did was shake my hand and say, ‘Well done.’ If I’d gone to another consultancy, which I could never see myself doing, it might have been different. But I think he appreciates that it’s football. It’s what I want to be in. And it’s PR, which is what I want to be in.”
As well as working with Brown, there are other things Southern says he will miss on moving to the client side of the industry, as well as some things he definitely won’t.
He explains: “I’ll miss the competition. I loved the competition. Especially working so long for a consultancy that, we would say, punched above its weight.
“I will not miss timesheets or consultancy board meetings. And the other thing I won’t miss are the prima donnas. The PR people and agencies that are as interested as much in their own image as their clients. That’s unfortunately the downside of PR, and it doesn’t do the industry any good at all. But I’ll be quite happy after 16 years in consultancy to have a go at in-house PR.”
Two days after this interview Hearts beat Hibs four-nil at Tynecastle, placing the club squarely at the top of the Scottish Premier League and securing high-profile coverage in the Scottish press. For the time, at least, it seems as though the club’s new signings, and its optimism, are paying off.